Hands on History

A post by volunteer Genevieve Pritchard

Genevieve with the handling tableI came to PHM through a short placement with the IF volunteer programme and what was six weeks has turned into six months. During that time I’ve been working with another volunteer, John, and Catherine, Kirsty, Harriet and Mark from different departments of the museum to develop an object handling table. Although object handling may become a permanent feature, during the WWI centenary it made sense to concentrate on objects from that period.

During the development of the handling tables the rules seemed quite simple but it became obvious when actually doing it that there’s quite a difference between theory and practice.

Firstly, there’s guessing what will attract people to the tables. To make sure the handler can keep items safe there should only be a few on the middle of the table at any time. Trying to make sure there’s a variety of media and subjects to talk about, it’s very easy to end up with half the stock on the table so in future sessions I’ll probably pick just one subject that’s most relevant at the time. It’s difficult too keeping in mind how the objects should be handled and getting visitors comfortable with handling. Objects should be kept no more than 10cm above the table but if a visitor holds it 15 or 20cm asking them to hold the object a little lower tends to makes them feel less confident and less likely to stay at the table.

Objects arranged on handling tableArranging objects on the table was another thing I experimented with. Visitors aren’t too interested in looking at photographs and leaflets but wander towards medals and feathers. I found placing the less visually appealing items in the middle of the shiny things means eyes wander over them more often and visitors are more likely to eventually pick them up. Also, objects like ration books are easily ripped by little hands so the rule is tougher items at the front and more delicate ones at the back near the handler. Putting the solder’s hat and badge on an information sheet meant visitors had to pick up the hat to read the information and if they’ve picked up one object, they tend to pick up a few more. Crafty.

I don’t know why but people seem to be more likely to talk if they already know something about an object, even if it’s reading from an information sheet. It definitely made people talk more when I put the sheets around the table and visitors could look at the object, read a bit about it and then start a conversation rather than just asking ‘what’s this?’ One thing that I wasn’t expecting was that visitors seemed really surprised when I admitted I didn’t know something but having objects that could be referenced in the gallery was useful and gets people looking more closely at permanent exhibitions they may have missed otherwise.

The most interesting thing for me was that people aren’t that interested in facts and history, they are more interested in value judgements and theory. If you talk to a girl about the Suffragettes you can see her eyes glaze over, but ask her how she would feel if only boys were allowed in the museum and there’s more of a conversation. I think politics does tend to be seen as both too close and too distant to real life. On one hand it’s about very ordinary and essential issues; having safe food and drink, adequate healthcare, decent education and work. But the processes and people that are involved with making those decisions are perhaps seen as academic and not about living politics. Hopefully getting people thinking and talking in the museum will have a knock on effect outside in the real world.

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